The caste system is usually employed to describe the morphology of the Indian society in which if an individual was born inside a determined group of people, he or she will be destined to live and work inside his or her own caste with no possibility to change, since his or her privileges are acquired by birth. But caste means also something else: it derives from the Latin word castus which means pure. Nowadays, in the Italian political and journalistic discourse, the word caste usually refers to the immense amount of privileges that Italian politicians enjoy and it has nothing to do with purity.

Yet, in Italy another kind of caste exists whose movements are not much under the spotlight. This group of people are usually called “barons”, a word which refers both to the aristocratic title and to what is colloquially called a big shot. But the baron has also to do with the Italian word “barare”, which means to cheat. With this word, we usually refer to a professional category which should have nothing to do with cheating and power, on the contrary, it should only have to do with purity. In Italy, barons are those university professors who behave and act in a particularly deceitful way in order to do and obtain favours, decide who is going to win an open competitive exam or who is going to be the next researcher for the department, etc.

Apparently, this category of professors is one of the many reasons which are paralysing the dynamics of hiring new and younger people in the system of the Italian university. As Matteo Fini tells in his still unpublished book about the hard life of an Italian researcher and reported by L’Espresso, many open competitive exams are fixed. Fini brings a particular example of his negative experience as researcher at university: after completing his PhD, he became researcher, tutored by an older professor who promised Fini a brilliant career. Along the years, Fini did everything his tutor told him to do but with no career advancement, then his tutor stopped calling him and finally he completely disappeared. The “grand finale” as Fini calls it is that

the department [for which Fini was working] announced that the selection for the post I had been working on for years was open […]. My tutor didn’t even tell me about that. Anyway, I decided to participate even though I knew that I could never have won without support. In Italy, first they choose the winner, then they announce a customised open exam to make him or her win it. […] At university everything is rigged.

This is a typical example of the behaviour of barons: if you are a young researcher hoping to have a career and unfortunately you happen to meet such professors along your way, it is extremely difficult for you to advance if you don’t have support. And support means that an older professor or your tutor creates external favourable conditions for you to win: the internal favourable conditions such as your preparation, knowledge, publications don’t matter if you are not externally supported, if your tutor is not a member of the commission which is going to examine your work.

Shawn | NUC Christmas Tree

Shawn | NUC Christmas Tree

Accordingly, one of the most dangerous consequences of this system, combined with increasingly less investments, is that it becomes more and more difficult to hire new and young talented teachers, as a matter of fact in 2105 in Italy the full professors under 40 are only 6.

This is quite an apocalyptic scenario, especially the personal experience described by Matteo Fini. Nevertheless, we should not take his testimony as the normal course of events in an ordinary attempt to become a university professor. As Fabio Sabatini comments on Il Fatto Quotidiano in response to the article of L’Espresso:

There exist generations of researchers working temporarily and not, and above all professors, who have no intention altogether to perpetuate such mediaeval practices as described in the article, and who manage teaching, researching and recruiting with the utmost transparency. […] The system is neither granitic nor unalterable.

It is possible to overturn the caste, and many have already started.